Scots Labour MPs blind to prospect of extinction

SCOTTISH Labour MPs seem to share similar traits with the pandas which Edinburgh Zoo hopes to be breeding in the near future. Pandas are famously obstinate about reproducing only after eating bamboo, which is the main reason they are on the verge of extinction.

Scottish Labour MPs have an obstinacy, too, that appears to make them blind to the need to adjust themselves to the change in the political climate in Scotland – also raising the prospect of extinction. Looking at them through the Holyrood prism, they seem hell-bent on destruction and doing all they can to help the Nationalists break up the Union.

The problem for Scottish Labour MPs is that in England, where they spend most of their working lives, they are perceived as backwoodsmen propping up an increasingly unpopular government which most English did not want.

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A report into what MSPs should be paid once noted that they do seven-eighths of the work of an English MP, which has led one or two disgruntled people in Holyrood to wonder whether Scottish Labour MPs just have to pick up the remaining eighth.

And in the corridors of the Scottish Parliament, there is a feeling that they are simply out of touch not just with what Scotland wants, but with even what Scottish Labour wants.

If proof were needed of how the Westminster village apparently distorts people's perspective, we need look no further than the Commons' Scottish affairs committee report into the 2007 election fiasco.

It's perhaps worth noting that the word fiasco comes from the Italian name for a pear-shaped bottle into which bad wine is put and sold cheaply. To put it another way, it has gone pear-shaped, which is exactly what happened to the elections in Scotland in 2007, with 150,000 people losing their vote and a cheapened result.

The consensus in Scotland, certainly among parties in Holyrood, is that 2007 was the nadir of a series of badly-run elections by the Scotland Office and it was time for Scottish Parliament and council elections to be run from Edinburgh, not Whitehall. In his report into what went wrong, Ron Gould agreed with this analysis and although he spread the blame about a bit, it was clear that he felt that the Scotland Office had not covered itself in glory.

So given this unusual consensus, it might be reasonably expected the Scottish affairs committee would fall into line and concur that maybe after almost a decade the Scottish Parliament had grown up enough now to be allowed to control its own elections. Not a bit of it. The Labour-dominated committee dismissed the idea that election control could be devolved and said everybody was to blame for the mistakes of 2007, not just little Dougie Alexander in the Scotland Office. In the end, Labour MPs – some of whom regret Holyrood's very existence – cannot bring themselves to hand over any more powers.

There were broad grins on the faces of Nationalist MSPs and their spin team once the committee's report began to circulate. At a stroke, a weapon which the Unionist parties had successfully neutralised in Holyrood from Alex Salmond's long list of "why we need independence" had been handed back to the SNP polished and sharpened – and was ready for them to start hacking away at the Union again. The groans from the Labour offices in Holyrood were audible.

But what else would they expect? The Westminster branch of Scottish Labour seems oblivious to the real and present danger the SNP poses – and only too happy to slap down any sense of independent spirit among colleagues in Holyrood.

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Witness the referendum debate of the last fortnight. Wendy Alexander took a politically courageous decision and for the first time looked as though she might take the fight properly to the SNP. As ever, she made a mess of introducing her new policy, but she had the almost wholehearted backing of her MSPs and she for a brief moment looked decisive, if not quite in control.

But any advantage that might have been gained from this surprising move was well and truly squashed by Gordon Brown and Westminster's clunking fist. If the need to neutralise the SNP had been properly understood, a referendum bill could have been pushed through Westminster on Labour's timescale with a question of Labour's choosing. Instead, they seem to have left it in the SNP's hands to be done exactly when Alex Salmond wants.

There was some spin coming from Westminster that Ms Alexander's antics actually scuppered a referendum bill in Westminster – but to believe that, you need faith in Gordon Brown's ability to make a decision. The feeling was the spin was another way of humiliating the severely damaged Scottish Labour leader at a time when she needed help, yet another example of Westminster arrogance.

But the events of the last two weeks on referendums and elections seem to be indicative of the contempt Labour MPs appear to have for Holyrood. It sometimes seems a day does not pass when the SNP can gleefully latch on to another issue to show where Scottish Labour MPs are doing their country down. The list is long – 30 million attendance allowance to support free personal care, nuclear weapons in the Clyde, Scottish lottery money spent on the London Olympics, accounting wheezes to stop Scotland getting Barnett consequentials on prison money. This is not to say the SNP is right on all these issues and Scottish Labour MPs are always wrong, but their lack of flexibility on anything undermines their stance when they have to take the Nationalists on.

Scottish Labour MPs should take a lesson from a species that now is extremely rare – the Scottish Conservative MP. The Tories lost Scotland by taking it for granted and allowing themselves to be branded the party of England. The worry is that if the Union is under threat with a Westminster government led by a party with lots of MPs in Scotland, what happens when David Cameron, as seems likely, wins in two years' time with very few Scottish MPs?